Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (1991)

4. Point Break

Kathryn Bigelow earned positive reviews with her first three features but the box office ranged from underwhelming to nonexistent. With her fourth theatrical film, Bigelow would have her first real commercial breakthrough. “Point Break” would be a hit in 1991 before becoming a cult favorite years later. Maybe “Point Break” was successful because it boasted the star power of Patrick Swayze, by then an established commodity, and Keanu Reeves, still a popular up-and-comer at the time. Maybe uncredited co-writer James Cameron's ability to tap into the popular zeitgeist helped. Maybe this was just the philosophical action/surfing combo the world needed at the time. Whatever the reason, “Point Break” remains perhaps Bigelow's most iconic film.

A gang of bank robbers have successfully pulled off thirty high profile robberies over the course of three years. They are called the Ex-Presidents, due to the presidential Halloween mask they wear, and have never been caught. A new FBI recruit, Johnny Utah, is brought in to track the gang. He develops a crazy theory, that the robbers are also surfers. Utah starts hanging out on the beach and meets a band of surfers. Their leader is a would-be shaman and wise man named Bodhi. Soon, Utah realizes that Bodhi and his surfing pals are the Ex-Presidents. Now, Utah has to make a choice between his duties as an officer and the new friends he's made.

“Point Break” is about as high concept as a premise can get. “It's a movie about bank robbers... Who are also surfers!” Yet what makes the film truly work is the sincerity with which it embraces this premise. This isn't a cop-chases-bank-robber story that happens to feature surfing or vice-versa. Both aspects of the plot are equally important, complimenting each other. This is, on its face, a rather silly combination. “Point Break” never looks back, making the surfing a philosophical component of its crime/action/thriller story. This straight-faced earnestness is likely why “Point Break” would become a cult classic years later, resulting in a movie that's cheesy but lovably so.

James Cameron might've co-scripted “Point Break” but Cameron's trademarks are hard to see in the film. Instead, this is totally Kathryn Bigelow's project. A number of the director's interests and trademarks shine through. Like “Near Dark's” Caleb, Johnny Utah is a hero pulled between two worlds. He feels fidelity to his duty as an undercover cop but comes to love Bodhi and his band of surfing robbers. As in “Blue Steel,” the film follows a hero that is not invigorated by violence. Instead, as Utah's adventure goes on, he becomes exhausted by bloodshed around him. “Point Break” is a far more flippant than “Near Dark” or “Blue Steel” yet the director's approach to combat remains very consistent. The death around Bigelow's heroes always weigh them down.

By the time “Point Break” had come out, Patrick Swayze had already made his mark on pop culture. The likes of “The Outsiders” and “Red Dawn” made him a teen star while “Dirty Dancing” and “Ghost” made him an international heartthrob. The most pertinent credit on Swayze's resume was the previous year's “Road House.” That film also featured Swayze playing a philosophizing bad-ass. While Bodhi is more villainous than the virtuous Dalton, both have something in common. They seek enlightenment through action. Bodhi sees surfing and bank robbing both as a way to transcend traditional cultural boundaries. By robbing banks, he transgresses social norms and escapes. By surfing, he feels a spiritual connection to the ocean, to the world around him. Swayze utilizes all his charm in the part, drawing more attention to Bodhi's bizarre philosophies than his amoral behavior, making him a real anti-villain.

In 2017, Keanu Reeves has been accepted as a lovable screen presence. His range might be limited but he always brings something ineffable to the movie around him. This was not the case in 1991. Reeves' particular delivery would be a point of mockery for years to come. People talked shit about his performance in “Point Break” but he's actually not bad. Reeves is actually about perfect for the part of Johnny Utah. The former Ted “Theodore” Logan has no issues playing the seemingly fried surfer dude. Reeves is also more than capable of playing Utah's conflicted emotions. He often acts to the heavens, screaming and shouting in that uniquely Keanu-esque way. Yes, an occasional line reading is a bit flat. Yes, Reeves' performance is sometimes odd. More often, though, he's perfectly in line with “Point Break's” campy, theatrical tone.

The bond between Utah and Bodhi is clearly the most important in the film. Like so many other eighties and nineties action flicks, the bromance quickly reaches homoerotic levels. Through his undercover mission, Johnny develops feelings for Taylor, a female surfer. Despite being played by Lori Petty at the peak of her quirky sex appeal, Utah frequently dumps her to spend time with Bodhi. In one especially memorable sequence, she more-or-less asks him to choose between his life as a surfer and his life as an FBI agent. Which is a convoluted way of asking him to choose between her and Bodhi. Utah proves his love by letting Bodhi escape. From that moment on, he gets multiple chances to stop Bodhi's crime spree. He's ostensibly playing along to protect his girlfriend but we know the real reason. “Hot Fuzz” said it best. He just loves him too much.

One also can't help but notice the oddball bit of political satire floating around inside “Point Break.” The bank robbers disguising themselves as former presidents wasn't just an aesthetic decision. The film calls it out early on. While dressed as Ronald Reagan, Bodhi announces why his gang chose this costume. Because politicians have been stealing people's money for years. Might as well make it literal. “Point Break” was released during the brief era of Bush the First, right on the heels of the Reagan administration. Depicting Reagan as the leader of a gang of bank robbers can't help but come off as a comment on Reagan's “trickle down” economics, a way to rob the poor and give to the rich. It also speaks to Bodhi's anti-government beliefs.

This stuff is interesting but probably not why audiences responded to “Point Break.” The action sequences are top-notch. Bigelow packs her film with at least three spectacular chase scenes. The first is a pretty great car chase. The closed quarters of the freeway are utilized well, as vehicles smash into each other. Lots of back glass is shot, along with many bent fenders. This leads into a far more spectacular foot chase. That's a sequence that begins with Swayze making an improvised flamethrower from a gas pump. Later in the chase, he throws a fucking dog at Keanu. Better yet, the filmmaker's camera gets right in there with the actors, careening around corners with them. After thoroughly covering the ground, “Point Break” also throws a chase scene into the air. A lovably preposterous stunt involves Utah free-falling from an airplane, catching up with Bodhi before he hits the ground.

“Point Blank” also squarely belongs to a style of bloody, hyper-violent action film that would, eventually, fall out of fashion in the nineties. As in “Blue Steel,” the shoot-outs are high impact. People are thrown backwards by gun blast, huge spurts of blood leaving their body. A shoot-out in a cramped house features head shots, heavy bleeding, and some gratuitous nudity. The heaviest violence occurs during the Ex-President's final, botched robbery. When the gang members are shot down, their pain and agony is felt. Blood is shown seeping through their clothes, the deaths being anything but clean. This continues onto the tarmac of the next scene, when a supporting character takes several bullets before biting the dust. Even in a relatively light weight popcorn flick like this one, Bigelow is preoccupied with the weight, the cost, of violence.

For all the attempts at seriousness “Point Break” makes, the film is undeniably steeped in early nineties cheese. Look no further than the surreal dialogue, spat with venom by two incredibly entertaining supporting performers. Gary Busey plays Pappas, Utah's older partner. Busey's typically unhinged energy is perfectly suited to the part. Pappas delivers rambling, bizarre dialogue about meatball subs, the quality of air and sex in L.A., and the various gross things people younger than him were doing while he was in Vietnam. When not shouting hilarious things, Busey successfully mingles a sense of authority with the vibrating madness he specializes in.

But it's not like Busey has the monopoly on weird dialogue in this movie. Keanu and Swayze pepper their lines with hilarious surfer slang. Your “radicals,” 'brahs,” “babes,” and “bros.” Some of the best one-liners, however, are saved for John C. McGinley. He plays Ben Cross, the hard ass FBI chief supervising the case. McGinley gleefully plays a jerk. He derides Utah's youth, in a memorably rhyming way. He despises the surfboard the younger agent carries into the office, going off on him. He's not a big fan of Busey either, the two trading verbal barbs before trading physical barbs. Even the smaller supporting parts are packed with recognizable faces. You might recognize Vincent Klynn from “Cyborg” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kledis in bit parts as other surfers.

Further emphasizing “Point Break's” indelible connection to the nineties is a soundtrack packed with bands like RATT, Concrete Blonde, and Public Image Ltd. Honestly, the mixture of graphic violence, intense action, goofy dialogue, macho bravado, and dated cheese probably shouldn't work. Yet “Point Break's” parts are greater than its whole. All the components mix together into a clearly appealing whole. Just ask any of the film's die hard fans. Such as those who watch it religiously or even created a stage show based on the film. (These same fans ignored the recent remake, which was totally forgettable by all accounts.) I'm not a die hard “Point Break” fan but, I have to admit, the film is certainly a blast to watch. [Grade: B]

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